Monthly Archives: March 2010

Naming the Lakeshore

We recently returned from a visit to one of our favorite places, Lake Michigan’s southeastern tip–New Buffalo, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Warren Dunes … everything between St. Joseph, Michigan and Gary, Indiana. On this visit we spent most of our time in New Buffalo, but also returned to Mt. Baldy and hiked through “Inland Marsh” for the first time.

Everywhere one turns, in the region, there’s some ugliness to be found. Past and future industrial failures. Expenditures of obnoxious wealth on equally terrible taste. Casinos. The great lake, however, remains and the dunes persist.

Although we did not meet each other at the lake, my wife and I have visited this region with semi-regularity for over two decades. We typically visit in less-than-pleasant weather. Visiting is cheaper in the off season and, more importantly, the place can be fairly empty. Therefore, scars and all, the lakeshore landscape is ours, a shared geography, a place in our time.

This time, the weather was windy and cool (in 40s). Warm enough to run outside (the daylight helps too) which I have not done there in at least 5 years. While my wife read a book, the kids thrashed in the pool, and I took off for any easy 10k, out-and-back.

From the road, beach front property looks smaller. Perhaps the builders turn the “big face” of the house to the lake, makes sense. Additionally, from the road view, there are cars, trees, trash receptacles, fences, tennis courts, and far too many “keep out” signs—possessions shrink in the clutter.

Many of the homes display cute names, sometimes above the door or on specially made signs in the sandy yards, but usually at the foot of the driveway, above, on or just under the mailbox.

The Gingerbread House, Stones Throw, Trelawney Place.

Why do people name houses and farms? I live in a nameless house. Before we moved in, the previous owners lived in a nameless house. Before that, another (probably nameless) house stood here amid urban decay. Today, our street in Indianapolis is too nice for us; the house is new, but I wouldn’t dare name it. There’s some violence in naming property (one “Christens” a vessel with broken glass) and, more so, vanity. Perhaps folks with the money to purchase vacation property, feel they can afford some vanity.

When I was a very small child my parents dreamed of purchasing a farm in Kentucky. I remember the dreamy sketches my mother drew–a barn, a mailbox, a wooden sign. The name? Apple Blossom Farm? Apple Tree Farm? I’m not so sure. Not long after naming my infant sister, they found and purchased a cheap stretch of clay and limestone. The yard, house, chicken shack, barn and sheds were brimming with the empty whisky bottles of the widower who had died there. I have no memory of the sign. Did my parents name the farm?

Homes and farms are suitably named when the name rises, like any word, from the common parlance. When your neighbors’ grandchildren call your house the Sand Castle, go ahead and commission some fancy signage.

Kilshannig, Tig Na Loch, Villa Alba, Kel-Sie Kottage!

I suppose I’m curmudgeonly harping on about fond dreams, little gestures of whimsy, the hopes and romances of the fortunate nouveau riche. No one likes a covetous whinger. But let hide in irony:

“O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop”

(Ezra Pound, Lake Isle)

Vanity. I feel safer, I suppose, in not displaying my hopes for a future of peace and continued good fortune, respite. Instead, I write poems no one will read. My hopes hidden in double-speak. Lines falling into oblivion. Like this–cryptic, trailing off. Formless, meaning pixilated.

The owners of one of the beach-front homes used a wood slab, cut from the oval end of a great log, bark still intact. They burned, there, the words “Shifting Sands” and propped the sign against one of several, still standing trees. I hope the proud and wealthy owners of Shifting Sands are simply braver souls. I imagine they looked irony straight in the face and said, “Yes, fortune, I’m building this house on a sand dune. Should it be here when I die, let Sotheby’s auction the place to the highest bidder.”

I hope, nonetheless, to take many, many more walks, to trespass there again and again, with my wife on these same shifting sands.

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Grēgoreite

James and John asleep. Albrecht Durer. Engaved Passion. Agony in the Garden.

James and John, sleeping. From: Albrecht Durer. Engaved Passion. Agony in the Garden.

Allying poetry with “spirituality,” “faith,” or “religion,” (inseparable terms, in my life), has always put me on edge. If one professes, as I try to, that all things, visible and invisible, are sustained (by and for) the one creator, our grandest literary efforts amount to mere farts and gargles. At best, human utterances (including poetry) serve and glorify God; poetry is not a special language whereby one gains better access to a divine audience, an elevated state of knowledge, or truer experience of the sublime. As for edification, a ham sandwich is better for one’s health. Poetry goes out. Poetry profanes.

Even so, poetry is made and found on the God-given human tongue. And, as God’s creatures, we bring the fullness of our lives, however awkwardly, to the service. (The cobble stones of Palm Sunday might sing better songs.) Therefore, and partly against myself, I too have found poetry (the reading and the writing) useful.

Poetry can do three things (and probably some more) for believers: 1. as I’ve already indicated, and foremost, it can (or must?) glorify the creator; 2. it can (or should?) reveal what is true; and 3) it can exercise the attending muscles.

(Poetry may have similar functions in a secular context … a tool is a tool. We are given many things.)

Reading the Gospel of Mark, I was reminded (uneasily) of my third point, my weakest (or perhaps most easily abused) notion, poetry as exercise. In Mark 13 and 14, Jesus repeatedly tells his followers to stay awake–γρηγορεῖτε, grēgoreite. Here is the first passage in the NRSV translation:

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (Mark 13:32-37)

As we know, Jesus’s students were slow to get the message, and so (in the next chapter) they fall asleep, physically (and spiritually?) in the Garden of Gethsemane:

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ (Mark 14:32-34)

When he returned to check on them, he woke them up:

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Mark 14:37-38)

And once again, he returned to find them sleeping:

And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. (Mark 14:40)

And finally:

He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’  (Mark 14:41-42)

The word γρηγορεῖτε in Mark 13:37 is translated in other versions as: “Watch!” (NIV, ASV, KJV).

Watching can be difficult and the active verb seems appropriate, but staying awake is hard, very hard. Some of us, probably all of us, walk in our sleep. Jesus lived a hard life and few believers are ready to leave “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields” for his sake (Mark 10:29, NRSV). Sleep walking allows one to ignore the painful truth. It insulates us from the most difficult choices. We ignore the upsetting sacrifices we are called to provide.

In a smaller way, readers do the same thing. We sleep read. Whole pages of a book can go by like miles on a daily commute. If we think we already know the book, we might even persuade ourselves that we were awake during the reading. And so, earnest folk go to services or sit in quiet corners with the scriptures and force an easy set of cultural cliches on the passages they think they are studying. We all do it. Believers and skeptics.

For me, poetry has been a difficult practice. Reading and writing. I can not sleep through a poem. If I do, I read nothing. I stop reading. I start over. A good poem demands an engaged attention. To hear the poem, I translate. My associations, memories, visions, encounters with people and words are mined to serve the poem. Without them, the poem (and the pleasure or pain it might give) has no place to root. Dozing off, it slips from consciousness. And so, in my case, to read a poem and to read it well, I fight to stay awake.

Perhaps all this is nothing more than a self-serving justification of time spent in an activity that fails to feed my family, fails to feed my neighbor, fails to make much a difference for anyone. (I am not a great poet and reading comes painfully slow.) Though selfishly, I think it does make a difference for me. With what intelligence I have, poetry is an exercise in wakefulness. If I can stay awake for the poem, perhaps I will be prepared to listen a bit longer to the Word. The latter is more difficult, the watching, the waiting, and I will fall sleep. I do fall asleep. I am asleep. In any case, I am training the muscles ow wakefulness for the task. The flesh is weak.

Finally, what little can I say: poetry is one way that at least one believer works to stay awake, works to keep watch, works (as Milton wrote at the end of Sonnet XIX) to “wait.” I will leave any grander claims to braver, surer, quicker minds.

Seasonal

Claytonia virginicaDross. The crocuses I ripped, unseasonably, from the ground the winter we moved to Indianapolis are blooming, feebly, again. I’m ashamed of what’s left of them, fighting through heavy mulch. Four bulbs under a little oak tree. The few I tucked under the Bradford Pear are long gone.

The rather boring, but once vigorous, mums and golden Rudbeckia, which once marked the birth of my sons, also failed. Inside the orchids are dying of the dry air and neglect. I am tempted to toss the whole lot. The days I’ve spent, dross.

This city must have a decent crop of spring wildflowers somewhere. I remember, from last year, brief carpets of Claytonia beside the Fall Creek bike path, east of Keystone Avenue. Also some spring flowers in a few of the yards in the city’s Old Northside neighborhood. More in the larger, greener, public parks, but these places lack diversity. The terrain is easy and over trod. Where is the old growth timber and the forest floor, eight inches deep in leaf litter?

Self consumed. Too many seasons in this city have turned on driving conditions, women’s clothing and school schedules. Note to Housman: I wouldn’t mind spring passing, if I could be other than numb when it went by. Here, compost delayed. Passivity, self consuming.

Beat back. Over mulched, repressed. The season sprouts to spite us, besides. The fruit flies over wintered this year on my family’s abundance. My daughter’s goldfish tank is greening up nicely. Lift the lid and soft drapery of moss can be seen spilling over the lip of the charcoal filter. Take us all.

Grace and grief. Over the weekend, under three days of dishes, I found a black-eyed pea sprouting in the sink. Root sprouting roots. Flesh thinning, folding out to leaves. Gently rinsed, I thought of planting it. Imagined it growing leggy or molding over. Tried, instead, to feed it to our little bird, the family conure. One turn of the beak and he dropped it to the newspaper at the bottom of his cage. Grief, so graced: dross.

Quarry Blue

Greener than fescue, Kentucky bluegrass is not blue. The blades are thin and the grass grows quickly and densely in the spring. If it goes to seed (grown to at least a foot), the field develops a feint, silver blue cloud. Under sunlight and in a breeze, it has a reflective sheen. Limestone and nitrogen; water and sun. Seed. It grew sparsely on our farm and the horses kept what they could find, trim.

Just across the road, Tatum’s pastures grew thick with fescue and timothy. Cattle pasture. Double wire electric fencing. But richer with field daisies, susans, Vitis, and cedars. I kept the pond’s dam between the farm house and my trespass. Shimmied under wire.

Even in my adolescence Tatum seemed worth avoiding. I suspect, now, that we had little to talk about (thirty years apart in age) but much in common. We would see him, from time to time, on our property. Carrying a shoulder height walking stick. Wandering across the horse field. Sometimes he would stand, seeming to look at nothing; the thoroughbreds ripping past, tossing their heads and clods of grass.

The horse, silly with the strange; lungs, muscles, hooves.

I recall no conversations with the man. I despised his beagles. And, while farm children go everywhere, farmers (it seemed) should stay at home.

The cedar grove abutted the railroad with a steep bank of clay mud, stone, and weeds. Tracks on creosote ties, a levee of quartz gravel. Scattered: knocked loose, 8 inch iron spikes; spent shot gun shells; the butt end of bottles, detrius from the glass factory.

Parallel the north side of the tracks: a brief, delicious mile; the best wild strawberries in the county. Birds dropped the seeds from low hung power wires.

Hope checks for fruit in the off season.

Two more hills. Two ponds, one dry. An Angus bull. An oak grove. Diesel engines, seemed the sound of a curse … then, more so than now.

A sudden chain link fence.

The quarry was a scar one might never see, but for trespassing. Great buildings deep and farms wide. In its depths, a water so blue. Bluer than a child’s sky. Bluer than life. Alkaline blue. Quarry blue.

Limestone quarry

Limestone quarry. Kentucky Geological Survey, University of Kentucky.

Beyond “Summerland”? A Few Dependants and a Brain-Dead Job?

A slow reader, I do not read fiction often. A few months ago, however, a good friend recommended something outside my usual fare: L.B. Graham’s Beyond the Summerland. The novel is the first in the author’s five part, Christian fantasy series “The Binding the Blade.” Given the personal recommendation and the decades that have past since I last read anything billed as “fantasy,” I decided to give it a try. My expectations were low and the atrociously trite cover art did not help. And then, I barely made it through the melodrama of the dead son in the 26 page prologue. (Unfortunately, the prologue includes some key facts for understanding the conflict that unfolds in the rest of the book; it can’t be skipped.) Later on there are a few unexpected (but useful) shifts in point-of-view. Finally, the characters are fairly simple–the “good guys” are typically likeable; the “bad guys” (including the petulant Judas character) are mostly unlikeable. Halfway through, therefore, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the story.

The novel has a solid narrative structure and a daring conclusion. A journey, a stay in paradise, a stay in hell, a chase, a couple of battles and a betrayal. The surprise at the end is particularly admirable because it is so well foreshadowed. The reader knows it is coming, but suspends judgment and refuses to believe that author has the guts to follow through. Well, in fact, he does have the guts. (I wish I could be more direct about this, but this is the kind of book for which one should not “spoil” the plot.)

Although Beyond the Summerland is admirably constructed, I am having trouble imagining it’s target audience.  The novel’s Christian typography is very tidy and the author is burdened by a large debt to Lewis and Tolkien. But the story lacks the youthfulness of Lewis’s Narnia books. At the same time, it lacks Tolkien’s elaborate adventures. More than Lewis and Tolkien, the book focuses on the relationships of its human character–mostly on late adolescent, male efforts to court (in a very idealized manner) virtuous, young women.

I do not object; as I’ve already indicated: I enjoyed the reading. (Is this a book for middle-aged men with fading memories of Tolkien and Lewis?) But something about it reminds me of “chick-lit.” Like many first novels, and like much young adult literature, this is a coming of age story … but sex with the lights off. Like many young adult books for boys, there are some journeys, adventures, and a few battles, but, in addition to the Christian themes, it’s the love interests that really matter:

“Reflecting on those wet, rainy nights between Dal Harat and Peris Mil, when the grey sogginess eerily reflected his own feelings, he knew he was lucky to have found Wylla. He hadn’t thought he would ever find a reprieve from the sorrow of losing Alina. He hadn’t ever expected to feel his heart soar and sing in the presence of another, and yet he knew with Wylla that he had found the object of his soul’s delight. Her presence wrung from him a deeper passion than he had ever felt. It would be foolishness to turn away. Inexperience in matters of love had cost him his chance for happiness with Alina, but now he knew enough to understand the nature of his own feelings. If he lost Wylla, too, he would have only himself to blame.” (p. 307)

This only the first book in a five part series, so there’s plenty of space for the narrative of The Binding of the Blade to outgrow boy-needs-girl. I’d have to keep reading to find out. Life is short.

Graham, L. B. Beyond the Summerland. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Pub, 2004. WorldCat | Amazon | GoogleBooks